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NY Gov. Paterson's Budget Calculator: a Case Study in Pretend Participation

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, November 10 2008

Reduce NY Spending: Budget Balancing Calculator 2013 General Fund

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama liked to talk about the need to take a "scalpel" to the federal budget. Looks like that's not an approach shared by New York Democratic Governor David Paterson.

Paterson has released an interactive "Budget Balancing Calculator" that challenges New Yorkers to bridge the state's $12.5 billion General Fund budget gap by adjusting state spending levels.

But the calculator is much more a dull-edged hatchet than a scalpel. Albany Project blogger robinia notes that this you can forget tweaks to individual programs. Only broad-brush cuts to massive categories of state spending, like "Education Aid" and "Transportation," are allowed here.

And never mind revenue-raising tax cuts: "Governor Paterson believes that our main focus should be on reducing the skyrocketing cost of state government," not boosting cash flow. What's more, your proposed budget doesn't seem to go anywhere. Hit "Make Budget Proposal," and your carefully-considered fiscal plan appears to disappear into the ether.

Obama showed a fondness for numbers-based online widgets during the campaign with a Obama-Biden Tax Calculator. Paterson's example is one of carefully-controlled participation, more of a souped-up press release than true open government.

But with the federal debt now topping $10 trillion dollars, Obama might be wise to actually invite in bright ideas on how to tame federal spending. The Obama Administration could go Paterson one better by empowering the people to craft budget proposals that have a chance at actually making sense.